Sometimes you’ve got to look for the trees in the forest. The good news of 2021 was like a host of saplings — little trees lost in the forest of inflation, the pandemic, and catastrophic weather events. Look closer and you will find numerous reasons to cheer, scientific discoveries and advances that give honest-to-goodness hope for humanity.
Most notably, 2021 saw one of the most-effective vaccines ever created, in record time. But that’s just the beginning. We witnessed other monster breakthroughs in biology, astronomy, medicine, engineering, computing, genomics, and many more scientific fields.
With so many astounding advances in 2021, it was tough to pick the most significant — but we tried anyway. Here are our favorite 15 moments worth telling the kids about. Prepare for your mind to be blown.
The Fastest Vaccine Rollout in History
The development, testing, and rollout of COVID vaccines has been called the moonshot of our generation. That might be an understatement. Thanks to devoted medical researchers and tens of thousands of everyday Americans who participated in clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted the Pfizer and Moderna COVID vaccines emergency use authorization for adults last December, followed by Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot vaccine this February. Since then, the vaccine has become available for children as young as 5. That’s a vaccine rollout available to 94 percent of the population (under 5 are excepted so far) in little over a year. Previously, the fastest vaccine to go from development to deployment was the mumps vaccine in the 1960s — which took about four years. Although we’re still struggling with COVID variants and breakthrough cases, this feat of inoculation has saved countless lives — and holds promise for a future where we can keep up with viral outbreaks in real time.
Regenerated Limbs? Try, an Entire Body
Lots of animals can regrow a torn-off tail or a leg lost to a predator, but sea slugs have the coolest regeneration trick by a long shot. As a Japanese scientist discovered this year, these slimy creatures can behead themselves on purpose and grow a whole new body within weeks. The severed head survives on its own while it regenerates vital organs and limbs, likely due to slugs’ plant-like ability to photosynthesize because of all the algae they eat. Even more impressive, the discarded body lives for weeks before eventually dying off. Researchers think sea slugs use this cool maneuver to hoodwink predators and escape unharmed, or possibly to survive parasite infestations of their lower body.
Brain-Computer Interface Tech Goes Full Avatar
Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) hold major promise for people with paralysis, allowing them to operate robotic limbs, wheelchairs, keypads, and other gadgets just by thinking about moving their bodies. But so far, BCIs have mostly been relegated to research settings, as they’ve required bulky cables to connect a person’s head to a computer to an external device.
Not anymore. The prestigious BrainGate research team has devised the world’s first high-bandwidth, totally wireless BCI that transmits brain signals as quickly and clearly as cabled systems do. In a recent clinical trial, the new device enabled two people with tetraplegia to point, click, and type on a tablet with precision and speed — no wires required. More research is needed, but this is a major step toward taking BCIs out of the lab and into the real world to help people with paralysis regain independence.
The Truth Is Out There (Now Available in the Library of Congress)
Americans’ boundless fascination with unidentified flying objects was finally indulged in 2021. In January, by way of the Freedom of Information Act, The Black Vault website posted the CIA’s recently declassified database of every UFO sighting reported by a military pilot, dating back to the 1980s. Concurrently, the CIA uploaded dozens of records of UFO sightings from the 1940s to the early 1990s.
Then, in June, the Pentagon issued a long-awaited nine-page report summarizing everything it claims to know about unidentified aerial phenomena, or UAPs, its fancy term for UFOs. Shocker: The government doesn’t know much. The report does assert that UAPs are not U.S. military craft, but otherwise, it pretty much plays the “inconclusive” card. But hey, although the dossier may not clear up many mysteries, the massive data dump should keep UFO-obsessed armchair detectives captivated for years to come.
Child Brain Development Gets Its Moonshot Moment
About 90 percent of human brain development happens by age five. And although neuroscientists have recently learned a lot about how and when various developments occur, especially in utero, there’s still a ton they don’t know, particularly about the impacts of nature versus nurture. These answers are now coming, courtesy of the largest, most comprehensive trial on early brain development ever, which kicked off this fall.
Through the HEALthy Brain and Child Development Study, researchers nationwide will track a diverse group of 7,500 pregnant people and their children throughout the next decade. Using neuroimaging and psychological assessments, they aim to map out the “normal” arc of brain development and discover how pre- and postnatal environments and exposures (stress, socioeconomic status, parents’ drug use, COVID, etc.) affect it — as well as how kids’ brains adapt. This historic study has the potential to unlock prevailing mysteries about autism, dyslexia, and other childhood neurodevelopment, emotional, and behavioral concerns.
WHO Approves First Malaria Vaccine for Kids
Long before COVID, malaria was — and as of time of publication, still is — one of the most lethal infectious diseases on the planet. This mosquito-borne pathogen kills half a million people annually, predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa. Over half of those malaria kills are children under age 5, Now, after a century of effort, scientists have finally developed a safe, effective malaria vaccine (the first vaccine for any parasitic disease, by the way), which the World Health Organization (WHO) greenlighted for all at-risk kids in October. Assuming nations prioritize vaccine distribution, experts estimate this breakthrough could prevent 5.3 million malaria cases and 24,000 deaths among children under 5 every year.
Researchers Cure (One Person’s) Type 1 Diabetes
An estimated 1.6 million Americans live with type 1 diabetes (aka juvenile diabetes), including 200,000 kids and adults under age 20. With no known cure, this life-threatening autoimmune disease, in which the pancreas stops producing insulin to control blood sugar, almost always requires intense 24/7 management.
That may be about to change. To the shock and elation of diabetes experts, an experimental treatment delivered in an ongoing clinical trial appeared to cure a 64-year-old man of type 1 diabetes, which would be a world first. After receiving infusions of insulin-producing cells grown from stem cells, the man’s body now makes insulin on its own, giving him “a whole new life,” as he told the New York Times.
Because this discovery is part of a five-year study involving 16 other participants, it’s still too soon to say with certainty whether the treatment is effective and safe long-term. But it’s the most promising development the world has seen in regard to a type 1 diabetes cure — and likely enough to make a parent or child living with type 1 do cartwheels.
On Mars, NASA Collects Rocks — and Then Flies a Freaking Helicopter
In February, almost seven months after launching from Earth, NASA’s highly sophisticated Perseverance rover touched down on Mars. The vehicle will spend nearly two years on the red planet, surveying the landscape, searching for evidence of past Martian life, and collecting geological samples to bring back to Earth. Then, in April, NASA’s solar-powered Ingenuity Mars Helicopter became the first-ever aircraft to make a controlled flight on another planet. By December 8, Ingenuity had logged 17 successful flights.
Scientists Spot 301 New Planets
Mars wasn’t the only celestial body to make news in 2021. In November, NASA scientists validated the existence of 301 new exoplanets — planets that orbit stars other than the Sun — bringing the total exoplanet tally to 4,870. The validation frenzy comes courtesy of NASA’s new ExoMiner deep-learning technology, which evaluates data collected by the Kepler spacecraft to distinguish legit exoplanets from convincing fakes.
Solar Panels Get Cheaper, Better, Faster, Stronger
With the average cost of a solar panel plummeting 90 percent between 2010 and 2020, it keeps getting cheaper and cheaper to generate power directly from the sun. That’s great news, as it helps shift our reliance away from fossil fuels, a key contributor to climate change. Frustratingly, however, solar panels haven’t gotten much more efficient in recent years, which has hindered widespread adoption of this form of clean energy.
To solve this issue, engineers have been looking for alternative materials that can outperform the standard silicon used in solar panels and still be inexpensive. They’ve had high hopes for perovskites, atomically thin, latticed materials that convert sunlight into energy highly efficiently. The only problem? Ultraviolet rays and moisture destroy perovskites in no time, tanking their usefulness.
But this year, Rice University engineers developed and road-tested solar cells made of two-dimensional perovskites. Their invention works much better than earlier models and withstands the elements. The trick with 2D perovskites, the researchers discovered, is that sunlight contracts the spaces between the atomic layers to boost efficiency by up to 18 percent — a huge leap forward in this field. With solar companies worldwide working to commercialize perovskite solar cells, this breakthrough should ultimately accelerate society’s conversion to solar energy.
Surgeons Pull Off the First Successful Arm and Shoulder Transplant
In January, Jean-Michel Dubernard, MD, the same surgeon who performed the first-ever hand, double hand, and partial face transplants, accomplished yet another historic feat: the world’s first double arm and shoulder transplant. The operation, performed in France, was a resounding success. The recipient, 49-year-old Felix Gretarsson of Iceland, who’d lost both arms in an electrical accident in 1998, has steadily gained mobility throughout the year, charting his progress on Instagram. He can now flex his biceps, pick up objects, and hug his granddaughter. Experts expect he will make more advancements in the coming years. Sadly, Dubernard died in July, but not before giving Gretarssinan entirely new life.
Paleontologists Count 2.5 Billion T. rexes Roaming the Planet
This year, scientists learned a lot about the massive creatures that inhabited the Earth many millions of years ago. First up, dinosaurs. The fearsome predator Tyrannosaurus rex roamed North America starting nearly 70 million years back, and now biologists have finally estimated how many: 2.5 billion. Terrifying, right? If it’s any comfort, that’s the total T. rex population spread out over 2.4 million years. So, really, there were only about 20,000 adult T. rexes living at one time.
Of course, that last generation of T. rex, along with the entire dinosaur kingdom, got wiped off the planet some 66 million years ago by an asteroid. Or wait, was it a comet? That’s the new theory put forth by Harvard astronomers to explain the so-called Chicxulub Impactor, the astronomical body that created a 93-mile-wide, 12-mile-deep crater off the coast of Mexico and, theoretically, killed the dinosaurs. Countering the prevailing asteroid theory, the Harvard astronomers think a comet from the fringes of our solar system got knocked off-orbit by Jupiter’s gravitational field and broke into chunks. Then an especially large chunk — the eventual Chicxulub Impactor — slammed into the Earth, wreaking major havoc and wiping out the dinos.
A One-Million-Year-Old Mammoth Gets Its DNA Sequenced
More than 60 million years after the dinosaurs, mammoths were living large, which researchers know because of the extensive fossil record. This year, such fossils yielded an unprecedented discovery: the oldest ancient animal genome ever recovered. In sequencing DNA from three mammoth teeth extracted from the Siberian permafrost, scientists determined the fossils were more than one million years old, obliterating the previous record held by a 560,000-to-780,000-year-old horse leg bone. The DNA also suggests a separate lineage, possibly a different species, of mammoth that scientists weren’t aware of before.
NASA Launches the Most Powerful Space Telescope Ever*
An international event that’s been decades in the making is finally (hopefully!) happening on December 24*. After multiple delays, the James Webb Space Telescope — the largest and most advanced scientific telescope in the history of space exploration — is scheduled to blast off from French Guiana aboard the Ariane 5 rocket. It will take 30 days to travel nearly 1 million miles to a stable spot in space and another six months to unfold its instruments, align, and calibrate. As it tracks Earth’s orbit around the sun for the next several decades, the infrared scope will directly observe parts of the universe previously unseeable, thereby demystifying the origin and evolution of our planet, solar system, and galaxies beyond.
We Learn to Track Global Outbreaks in Real Time
One of the biggest differences between the COVID pandemic and that of the 1918 Spanish Flu is the way that we track it. It’s nearly unimaginable that we once had to follow death and infection rates by local tally — and had essentially no way of knowing about new viral variants. Now, led by the WHO, scientists have a colossal global collaboration to monitor the spread and evolution of SARS-CoV-2. Huge amounts of data have been collected and shared across borders, allowing researchers to get quickly gain an idea of how a variant like Omicron spreads and affects case numbers and hospitalizations. We didn’t have this sort of technology available at the beginning of the pandemic. As of April 2021, the online GISAID database contained only one million SARS-CoV-2 genomic sequences. That’s after about 16 months of pandemic. But in the eight months since, another five million sequences have been added. In other words, genomic sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 has gotten ten times faster since the spring. This accomplishment highlights that one of the biggest challenges of science isn’t discovery, but sharing discoveries, and countries across the world are now doing that in a way they’ve never done before.
Quantum Computing Goes Commercial
What takes today’s best supercomputers several days or weeks to process, quantum computers can knock out within seconds. That’s why quantum computing, which leverages the laws of quantum physics for unprecedented processing capabilities, is already considered among the biggest scientific breakthroughs of the 21st century. Eventually, it’s supposed to revolutionize manufacturing, meteorology, cybersecurity, national defense, and much more.
Well, 2021 made “eventually” closer than ever. In November, IBM unveiled its 127-qubit Eagle, the most powerful quantum processor yet. Then earlier this month, the company Quantinuum debuted the world’s first commercial product built from quantum computing: a cloud-based cybersecurity platform called Quantum Origin. With the world’s top tech companies and research institutions racing to advance this next-gen technology, expect quantum computing to make our list again next year, and the next, and the next…
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